Gordon Ramsey



By Gordon Ramsey




Parading to fife and drum has been part of working-class culture in Ulster since the 1780s, when the practice was popularised by part-time military forces such as the Volunteers and Yeomanry.[1] The marching flute-band became the dominant musical ensemble in parades by the turn of the 20th century, when many bands were sponsored by the mass political movements, nationalist and loyalist, mobilised by successive Home Rule crises.

Many loyalist bands at this time were supported by lodges of the Protestant fraternity, the Orange Order, and found most of their performance opportunities at Orange parades.  Today, the situation is radically different, with the vast majority of loyalist bands being independent of the Order, and Orange parades forming a very small proportion of their activities.

In 2010, loyalist marching bands are more numerous, more active, and more central to the lives of their members than they have ever been. The level of participation is extraordinary, with over 700 bands active within the six counties of Northern Ireland,[2] and bands also flourishing in the border counties of the Irish Republic, and in western Scotland.  Over half of the bands within Northern Ireland are flute bands, with accordion, pipe, and brass or silver bands making up the remainder (Witherow 2008:47-8).  Every weekend (and some Wednesdays too) these bands participate in band parades, organised by and for bands, in towns and villages across Northern Ireland, in a marching season that now lasts from April to October.  In addition, they take part in the traditional celebrations of the Loyal Orders,[3] and perform in a variety of indoor contests and concerts throughout the year.

Following the outbreak of communal conflict in the late 1960s, marching bands became an increasingly visible and assertive manifestation of loyalist identity.  Many were actively involved in political demonstrations, such as the 1980s campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and disputes surrounding Orange parades at Drumcree and elsewhere during the 1990s.  This sometimes led them into confrontation with nationalists and with state security forces, and the Orange Order, amongst others, frequently blamed bands for trouble at such events.

Almost entirely from working-class backgrounds, flute-bands vary widely in their instrumentation, performance practices, and their repertoires, which can range from Mozart to Abba, from traditional jigs and hornpipes to the ‘Orange’ tunes with which they are most frequently associated.  Within the flute-band world, there are three distinct genres –‘part-music’, ‘melody’, and ‘blood & thunder’– each with its own history, aesthetics, practices, events and hierarchies.

The first part of this paper will document the history which brought each of these genres into being, whilst the second part will use ethnographic experience within bands from each of the three genres to explore the different ways that class, ethnicity and aesthetics interact to produce the specific tastes, practices and embodied identities which define and sustain these bands.

Roots: The Ulster Fife and Drum Tradition

The fife and drum was popularised in Ireland towards the end of the 18th century by part-time military forces such as the Volunteers and Yeomanry, in which each company was led by a single fifer and drummer.  The fife and drum ensemble took firmest root in Ulster where these predominantly Protestant forces were strongest.  In the early 19th century, the practice of parading to fife and drum was adopted by two rival lower-class fraternities, the Protestant ‘Orange Order’ and the Catholic ‘Ribbonmen’, later the ‘Ancient Order of Hibernians’.

From the mid-19th century onward, the fife and drum tradition in Ulster diverged from military practice, as the massive and locally developed ‘Lambeg drum’, played with malacca canes, replaced the earlier military drums, and distinctive rhythms developed quite different to those used by the military.  The fifing tunes that accompanied the Lambeg drums were closely related to the popular dance music of the time, in fact often the same tunes were used for dancing and drumming.  Whatever rhythm the tunes were played in for dancing, however, whether jig, reel or hornpipe, when played by fifers they were ‘dropped down’ into the distinctive slow duple metre of ‘fifing time’ (see Appendix A).  Fifing time fitted with the slow pace at which the drums could move, and allowed time for elaborate ornamentation by the drummers.

Video: Fife and Lambeg at Maghera

The tunes followed the usual format of contemporary dance music, consisting of two eight-bar sections, each of which was repeated.  The tunes were generally keyed in pentatonic or heptatonic modes easily played on the fife, usually notated in the major keys of G or D.  Usually, the first part of the tune was drummed in a sparse, syncopated style referred to as ‘single time’, whilst the second was drummed with a rapid rolling of alternate drumheads referred to as ‘double time’.  Sometimes drummers would build up gradually from single to double time during the course of the tune.[4]

Drumming Parties, as these fife and drum ensembles were known, usually consisted of one or two Lambeg drums, sometimes accompanied by a side drum, and one or two fifers.  They wore no uniforms and made no attempt to march in step.  The flute bands that would largely replace them were radically different in both sound and appearance.

Emergence of the Flute Band

In 1887 the British Army replaced the fife with the marching-band flute, and this influenced parading practices in Ireland.  The technological change from fife to flute was enmeshed with processes of industrialisation and globalisation.  The fife was a straight-bored instrument that could be produced readily by part-time craftsmen from locally available woods (Hastings 2003:45).  In contrast, the flute had a conical bore, and was of two or three-piece construction including a metal tuning-slide, requiring sophisticated precision production techniques.  It was usually made of African blackwood and imported from English manufacturers.

Fife and Flute

In a period of urbanisation and industrialisation, the slow ‘dander’ of the drumming parties was seen as rustic and outdated.  Drumming parties were derided, both within and outside the parading fraternities, for being unmusical and undisciplined, and gradually found themselves marginalised by the quick-march of the flute-band.  The Lambeg drum survived, but primarily in the competitive context of the drumming contest, where it was separated from the fife.  Since the 1990s, however, the Ulster-Scots cultural revival has led to a renewal of enthusiasm for the ‘drumming party’ in some rural parades.

Video : Lambeg at Carrowdore

Like the fifers before them, the repertoire of the early flute-bands was closely related to popular dance traditions, but ‘fifing time’ was abandoned.  Jigs, hornpipes and strathspeys were the rhythms most frequently adapted to the newly popular ‘quick-march’ pace,[5] whilst drumming styles were again modelled on military ‘rudiments’.[6]

Increasing prosperity enabled political associations and fraternal lodges to support their own bands (Bryan 2000:58), and the ‘Home Rule’ crises that recurred from 1886 until 1914 encouraged many within both nationalist and loyalist movements to do so.  If political conflict could lead to an increase in musical activity, however, the common love of music could create bonds that crossed sectarian boundaries.

Flute Band Development: The NIBA and the Part-Music Band

The popular dance tunes which formed the mainstay of the early flute-bands’ repertoires, and which were learned by ear and played without harmonies, are now generally thought of as ‘Irish traditional music’.  At the time, however, most of these tunes were not regarded as particularly traditional, or particularly Irish.  They were part of a broader popular dance music that spanned most of western Europe, and were regarded much as country music is regarded in Ireland today: popular with working people everywhere, but treated with condescension by the upper classes.

Such condescending attitudes to their music were resented by many bandsmen, particularly amongst the rising artisans of industrial Belfast.  Moreover, many were hearing and developing a taste for new, and more prestigious types of music.  Through the concert hall, the church organ and the pianos in the homes of the more prosperous, the music of the orchestra, the opera and the military band was finding its way into the soundscape of Ulster.  These musics differed from traditional tunes, in that they used a wider range of tones and frequently changed key from one part of the tune to another.  Such tunes were difficult or impossible to play on the fife, but the new marching-band flutes, equipped with up to six metal keys, provided a technology capable of reproducing such music.  Moreover, the new flutes were produced in a range of different musical keys, which allowed bands to develop a full range of harmonies.  The use of harmony also led to the growth of musical literacy.  The bands that followed this path were known as ‘part-music’ bands, because they played in part-harmony.

Video: Ballygowan Flute Band

In the frenetic atmosphere of political rallies and demonstrations that surrounded successive Home Rule bills, the new bands found plenty of performance opportunities, but their enthusiasm for their music crossed political boundaries.  In 1907, the North of Ireland Bands Association (NIBA) was formed, a ‘community of practice’  (Wenger 1998) with a consciously non-sectarian and non-political ethos.  Thirteen bands took part in the NIBA’s inaugural parade from Belfast’s Ormeau Park, of which ten appear by their names to have been Protestant and three Catholic (http://www.niba.fsnet.co.uk/history.htm).[7] In 1910, the association organised its first flute-band championship, and it was clear that its interests already extended beyond street marches: the test piece was Berlioz’s Faust (http://www.niba.fsnet.co.uk/history.htm). The contest is still staged annually to this day.  Whilst the part-music bands were seen as the ideal to be pursued, most bands continued to play in the traditional style, without harmonies, and they were therefore referred to as ‘melody’ or ‘first-flute’ bands, because they played only the melody, or ‘first-flute’ part.

Change and Decline

Following the cataclysmic impact of the Great War, the guerrilla conflict in Ireland which followed, and the partition of the island in 1921, nationalists throughout Ireland largely turned away from parading as a form of cultural expression, and it came to be seen as a ‘Protestant’ practice.  Over the succeeding decades, flute bands declined in significance in Ulster as new instruments, first the accordion and following World War Two, the bagpipes, came to dominate Orange parades in the north (Bryan 2000:68,70).

By the 1960s, the entire parading tradition was in decline (Bryan, Fraser & Dunn 1995:8,17; see also Bryans 1964:18,21,88) as new forms of popular music replaced the traditional communal forms, and the remaining bands of all genres became increasingly interested in competitions, rather than parades.  Within the flute-band world, a small hardcore of part-music bands, driven largely by intense rivalries with each other, dedicated themselves to performing ever more complex pieces from the European art-music tradition in NIBA contests.  From 1965 onward, a number of these bands purchased silver Boehm-system flutes of the kind used in orchestras, but including a number of specialist instruments specifically designed for flute bands (Heaney 2005:10-12).  These included the new G-treble flute that replaces the B-flat wooden ‘simple-system’ flute as the main melody instrument.  Although the contests had once attracted large audiences, the plethora of alternative leisure pursuits available by the 1960s meant that they were already of interest only to a small coterie of dedicated enthusiasts.

Video: The Crimson Banner Band

The new flutes were at their most effective on the contest platform, where their sweet tone soon made them essential for achieving the top honours.  They were regarded as less suited to street parades, where their lower sound did not carry over the drums as well as the simple-system flutes (Heaney 2005:11).  Those bands that had made the major investment in purchasing such flutes therefore focused increasingly on practicing for contests, and parading became less of a priority for them.  The Boehm-system flutes were incompatible with the older simple-system instruments since they played in different keys.  Moreover, the Boehm-system fingering was significantly different to the simple-system, making switching from a band using one system to a band using another a challenge.  For these reasons, something of a cultural gulf opened between the majority of bands, which continued to play simple-system flutes and find their performance opportunities primarily in street-parades, and the minority which had purchased Boehm-system instruments, for which the contest became the primary raison d’etre.

The contest-oriented bands saw themselves as the elite of the declining tradition.  All that was to change in the 1970s, however, when the emergence of a new kind of flute-band revitalised the parading tradition, and saw the contest bands relegated from the position of role model to that of marginal subculture.

The New Wave: Blood and Thunder

In the 1970s, life in Northern Ireland changed drastically for the worse.  Massive and rapid de-industrialisation devastated working-class communities, and the damage was exacerbated by the outbreak of vicious communal conflict.  Young males in loyalist communities responded to these conditions in a way which has been common in situations of urban deprivation and ethnic division from Los Angeles to Paris: by developing a youth-gang culture, which in Northern Ireland was known as the ‘Tartan gangs’, due to their use of tartan scarves for identification.  Bell (1990) has documented how, within a few years, the Tartan gangs, under pressure from both police and their own communities, metamorphosed into flute-bands.  This change marked the beginning of a massive expansion in band numbers that continued throughout the period of ‘the troubles’, and the peace process years that followed.  The emergence of a musical culture from a gang culture is not unique to Northern Ireland: similar dynamics can be seen in the growth of Trinidadian steelbands in the 1940s (Stuempfle 1995), and hip-hop communities in the urban USA during the 1980s (Zook 1992:258).

The flute bands that emerged in the 1970s were very different in style to the established part-music and melody bands.  The new bands described themselves as ‘blood-and-thunder’ flute bands, and they provided a percussion led acoustic folk music for a generation that had grown up with rock.  The blood-and-thunder style derived from the bands of urban Glasgow, and its core value was not technical accomplishment, but mass participation.  The repertoire, all learned by ear, was based on traditional 16-bar melodies, but drew eclectically from sources as diverse as pop-songs, film themes and football chants adapted to fit the traditional format.  Complex military drumming techniques were abandoned for a simple but dramatic style based on single strokes.  In order to facilitate the simplified drumming style, jigs were abandoned, and Orange tunes that had traditionally been played in jig time were transposed as 2/4 marches.  Simple tunes and rhythms meant that large numbers of bandsmen could be quickly trained, and this was important, for volume was as important to a blood-and-thunder band as to a rock band.  Without amplification, volume was a function of numbers, so a big band was a good band.  Adding to the aural power of a blood-and-thunder band on song was the spectacle of a youthful drum major, dancing athletically whilst twirling and hurling his ‘band pole’ high in the air, and the bass drummer, whose uninhibited performance could also break into improvised dance, contrasting with the regimented lines of flutes and snare-drums.  The use of familiar tunes enabled audiences to participate enthusiastically in performances by singing or clapping along.  The blood-and-thunder style became hugely popular, and its popularity brought about social, as well as musical changes.

Parading as a Way of Life

Few blood-and-thunder bands were affiliated to Orange lodges, many of which found the blood-and-thunder style unsuited to their mainly religious parades.[8] Whilst this gave bands independence, it also left them reliant on their own resources to raise funds for instruments and uniforms.  A minority of bands addressed these problems by affiliation with new sponsors: loyalist paramilitary organisations.[9] Most blood-and-thunder bands, however, preferred to maintain their independence from both Orange and paramilitary affiliation, requiring them to become financially self-sufficient.  This they achieved by organising their own fund-raising parades, to which they would invite other bands.  This practice created a new parading calendar entirely independent of the traditional Loyal Order parades (see Bell 1990:110,122).

From the 1980s onward, the number of bands and band-parades grew and as the number of parades increased, so the bands became increasingly important in the lives of their members. This process continues today.  Traditionally, most bands had been ‘gather-ups’.  They had come together at the beginning of the summer to practice and had taken part in a couple of church parades, The Twelfth celebrations, and perhaps the Relief of Derry commemoration on August 12th.  The Royal Black Preceptory’s demonstration on the ‘Last Saturday’ of August marked the end of the loyalist-parading season, and after that event, most bands would effectively disband until the following summer.  The seasonal nature of such music making was reflected in the humorous term for pre-marital sex: ‘drumming before the Twelfth’.  The increase in the number of band-parades has extended the parading season from April to October, as well as increasing the intensity of parading, with band-parades taking place on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings throughout the summer.  From attending half a dozen parades annually in the traditional loyalist calendar, some bands now attend as many as seventy a year.

Video: Ballykeel Band

This intensification of activity increased both opportunities and demands for band members.  During the early 1980s, band-parades became central to the social lives of many young working-class people, for whom mass unemployment meant they had much time, but little money to spend on visiting pubs or nightclubs.  It soon became customary for bands to arrange a disco following an evening parade, and dancing became as important as marching in the evening’s activity, as it had long been on festivals such as the Twelfth.  Band-parades were subject to regular public criticism concerning drunkenness and rowdy behaviour, similar to that levelled at drumming parties a century earlier.   Despite this, band-parades continued to increase in popularity.  By performing in public spaces, they attracted wider audiences than the working-class youth from which they were drawn.  Moreover, the blood-and-thunder bands invited other types of bands – melody, accordion and occasionally brass and pipe – to take part in their parades, and many of these bands reciprocated by holding their own parades.  The vitality of the blood-and-thunder bands thus played a role in regenerating the wider band scene, which continued to grow throughout ‘the troubles’ and the ‘peace process’ years that followed.

Being a Bandsman:

Ethnographic Experience in Three Genres of Flute Band

Whilst all flute-bands are predominantly working-class, the varying tastes and practices they have developed are conditioned by individual histories in which class-position, ethnicity and geographical location all play a role.  My introduction to flute-bands came through a summer school for the concert-flute run by Colin Fleming, lead flautist with the Ulster Orchestra.  Fleming had learned to play in Ballyclare Victoria Flute Band, which his father had conducted, and a number of band members attended the summer school.  When my interest in flute-bands was discovered, I was invited to join this part-music band and played with them for five years.  During this time, I encountered other genres of flute-band, and was also invited to play with the melody band, Sir George White Memorial, Broughshane, and the blood-and-thunder band, The Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster, from Ballymena.[10]


Ballykeel Flutes Practice

The second part of this paper will explore ways that the different histories, practices and aesthetics that pertain in each of these bands lead to the production of radically different identities.  Wenger (1998:152) has asserted that identity is constituted by membership in ‘communities of practice’: ‘not just through reified markers . . .but more fundamentally through the forms of competence that it entails.  Identity in this sense is an experience and a display of competence . . .’.  Identity, in Wenger’s conception, is not a mere self-image or symbolic marking, it is embodied: instantiated in musculature and neural networks by a history of practice.  Wenger emphasises that embodied competences can only constitute identity when they are recognised as such by a community of practice.  Aesthetics thus becomes a central component of identity.  Bourdieu (1984) has shown that in capitalist societies, aesthetics are both a product of, and are productive of social class, and indeed, that class is embodied in the specific competences, or habitus, that are developed within particular physical and social environments.  Class will be central to the analysis that follows.

Ballykeel Drums Practice

Ballyclare Victoria and the World of the Flute Band League

Ballyclare Victoria Flute Band (BVFB) was formed in 1919 by veterans of the Great War – band historians Heaney (2005) and the band’s website

(http://www.ballyclarevictoriafluteband.co.uk/history.htm) suggest it initially acted both as an ‘old comrades’ association and a form of musical therapy.  A part-music band from its inception, BVFB initially found its performance opportunities in parades, and community events such as church picnics.  In 1931, a new generation of bandsmen with competitive ambitions took the band into the NIBA. This led to the employment of a paid conductor, and over the next two decades, BVFB worked its way up the competitive rankings, driven by a fierce rivalry with the band from the neighbouring village of Ballyeaston.  Both band secured promotion to ‘Grade 1’ of the NIBA’s Flute Band League in 1950, but whilst Ballyeaston eventually folded, BVFB went on to an extraordinary period of competitive success.  Having purchased Boehm-system flutes in the mid-1960s, the band won 16 All-Ireland championships, including ten consecutive victories, between 1971 and 1990.  Ballygowan Flute Band, from Co. Down, replaced Ballyeaston as BVFB’s greatest rivals.  The powerful inter-band rivalries, the purchase of expensive Boehm-system flutes, and the extraordinary success that followed solidified BVFB’s commitment to the practices and identity of a championship-winning band, and this was their obsession when I joined them in 2004.

Much of BVFB’s year was spent practicing for two events, the NIBA’s ‘All-Ireland Championship’ in October, and their ‘Own Choice Contest’ in February.[11] Weekly rehearsals were highly organised: every player knowing their place in a seating arrangement that enacted the hierarchical structure of the band, with the ‘stars’, the solo flutes, piccolo player and first-flutes at the front, with ranks of seconds and thirds, largely made up of less experienced players, behind them along with the bass-section, largely composed of older men who had accepted that they would never be amongst the ‘stars’. At the back was the percussion section, clearly at the bottom of the hierarchy.  During breaks, it was noticeable that the different sections of the band socialised primarily with each other.

The practices, in Ballyclare Orange Hall, started with chat and banter, but soon settled into the serious business of perfecting every element of phrasing, intonation, articulation and dynamics throughout the test pieces, which included material by composers such as Beethoven, Verdi and Mussorgsky.  As the contest date approached, the band started to practice twice or three times a week.  Practices at this point were long, intensive, and could be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.  The conductor expected total commitment and was intolerant of any failure to meet those expectations.  During the three years that I played with the band, this commitment was rewarded with two Championship wins, and numerous other trophies.

Balllyclare Rehearsal

When not practicing for contests, BVFB took part in concert performances and a small number of parades, for which the band charged a fee.  Parades included the major Orange celebrations, Remembrance Sunday and the Ballyclare May Fair.  These activities were given much less priority than contest performances, and were seen by many as just ways of financing the band’s contest campaigns.  This was particularly true of parading.  The band did not practice the skills of playing on the march, very different to those required for indoor performances, and as a result, parades could be stressful experiences for young recruits, and the band did not convey the impressive presence on the street that it did on the contest platform.

BVFB’s uncompromising commitment to championship success attracted new members, some of whom travelled from as far as Londonderry and Glasgow to play with the band.  These included a significant minority of middle-class members, whose values were different from the working-class men who had traditionally formed the core of the band.  Many of these influential members regarded parading as, at best a distraction, and at worst, as detrimental to the band’s real raison d’etre: winning contests.  Some believed there was a stigma attached to parading, due the violence seen at parading disputes such as Drumcree, and therefore chose not to parade, meaning that often only half the band turned out. Moreover, the aging and dowdy street uniform (unlike the immaculate concert attire) added nothing to the band’s presence.

Ballyclare at the Championship

Whilst many experienced band members found the emotional catharsis of ‘flow’ experiences (Csikszentmihalyi 1974, 1975, 1992; Turner 1982:56) in virtuosic performance of art-music on the contest platform, the failure to produce equally compelling performances on the street led to difficulty in recruiting, or retaining members from Ballyclare’s working-class youth, who had little interest in art-music, and found the intensive practices exhausting and unrewarding.  Moreover, the stigma that attached to all flute bands meant that middle-class recruits never came forward in sufficient numbers to fill the ranks.  This situation led to a precipitate fall in numbers during my time in the band, and in 2010, the band is struggling for survival with an aging and dwindling membership.  Ironically, the band’s uncompromising commitment to contest excellence has led to the situation where, due to falling membership, it is no longer able to perform at a contest-winning standard.

Sir George White Memorial Flute Band:

The World of the Band Parade

In early 2005, I was invited to join Sir George White Memorial Flute Band (SGWM), a melody band based in the village of Broughshane, on the outskirts of Ballymena, which however, attracted a significant proportion of recruits from the working-class estates of Ballyclare.  Like BVFB, Sir George White Memorial participated in the NIBA’s ‘Own Choice’ contest, although in Grade 4, rather than Grade 1.  The band’s primary focus, however, was on parading, and they took part in thirty to forty band parades every year, in addition to the major Orange celebrations.  The band’s repertoire comprised a combination of military marches and traditional tunes, played with part-harmonies on simple-system wooden flutes, accompanied by military-style drumming.

Broughshane Practice

The band was formed in 1978 as a blood-and-thunder band named Broughshane Young Loyalists (BYL).  BYL organised an annual band parade in the overwhelmingly Protestant village, but perceived drunkenness and rowdy behaviour caused tensions with the village’s large middle-class population.  In 1982, the band became involved in a violent fracas with another band on the Craigavon Bridge during the annual Derry Day Parade.  The leadership used this event as a catalyst for a change in direction.  The band was reformed, without some of its more problematic members, as a melody band named after Broughshane’s Boer War military hero, Sir George White.  The repertoire, musical style and uniforms were changed and the annual band parade abandoned.

Organisation of the practices, in Broughshane Orange Hall, appeared similar, if somewhat less complex, to that of BVFB, but any tendency for hierarchies to develop was counteracted by the frequent punctuation of practices by banter, directed in particular at the bandmaster/conductor (whose service was unpaid) and at leading players.  As a result, the atmosphere in practices was relaxed and sociable, and the band did not develop the ‘cliques’ that were apparent in BVFB.  Although regularly being placed in competitions, SGWM never took first prizes, but in contrast to BVFB’s focus on winning trophies, SGWM’s bandmaster always emphasised that the position attained was unimportant; what was significant was gaining experience in performing together, and performing to the best of our ability.

For SGWM, the real rewards of performance came primarily on the street parade, both in the reactions of spectators, whether applauding, or clapping, dancing or singing along to tunes, and in the feelings of ‘flow’ generated by performing well together.  Not only was most of SGWM’s practice devoted to parading tunes, but they also practiced drill, and invested in a striking orange and blue uniform styled on that of the British Army’s Irish Guards.   Whilst this approach has not brought SGWM the cupboard full of trophies collected by BVFB, it has proved a much more effective strategy in terms of sustainability.  The band has grown steadily over the last five years and is still attracting young recruits.


The Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster:

Blood-and-Thunder World

I was recruited into the Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster (BLSOU) in 2006 by a drummer who was already playing with both SGWM and BLSOU.  BLSOU were formed in 1982 in the Ballykeel housing estate in Ballymena, identified as the most deprived neighbourhood in Northern Ireland outside Belfast or Londonderry (http://www.dsdni.gov.uk/nr_draft_imp_plan_towns_cities.pdf) and initially played in the blood-and-thunder style that was hugely popular at that time.  By 1990, however, the band had declined in numbers and acquired an unwelcome reputation for drunkenness on parade.  At this point, the band reorganised and set a new course.  BLSOU moved from playing simple 2/4 song tunes with single-stroke drumming to playing traditional dance tunes, mostly jigs and hornpipes, accompanied by a drumming style which combined the drama of blood-and-thunder with more complex pipe-band techniques.  BLSOU were influenced by the long tradition of playing such tunes in north-Antrim first-flute bands, such as Dunaghy, Ballyrashane and Ballee, by influential cassette tapes produced by leading Scottish blood-and-thunder bands such as Blackskull and Pride of the Myle, and by other blood-and-thunder bands in Northern Ireland which were moving in similar directions.  The new style became known as ‘jig-style blood-and-thunder’, and was geographically concentrated in the north-Antrim area.

Jig-style was more demanding, on both fluters and drummers, than ‘traditional’ blood-and-thunder, and this made the transition a difficult process, which resulted in the loss of numerous members.  But soon, BLSOU were getting attention on the street and winning trophies at competitive band parades and the ranks filled with more committed members.  As the band’s influence increased, the jig-style started to spread out of its north-Antrim heartland.  But as part of the stigmatised genre of blood-and-thunder, which was never given media coverage unless involved in violent confrontations, BLSOU remained almost entirely unknown to those outside working-class loyalist communities.

BLSOU practices appeared informal compared to the structured nature of BVFB and SGWM’s events.  In part, this was due to the inadequacy of the premises, a cramped community house in which fluters found a seat where they could, and drummers drummed on a plywood board laid across the pool table, since playing drums would have been deafening in the small room.  However, it was also due to the fact since all fluters played the melody, the only division of labour, and therefore the only possibility for hierarchy, was between fluters and drummers.[12] Rivalry between the two groups was suppressed due to their mutual dependence, but could sometimes emerge in comments from fluters suggesting drummers were ‘unmusical’, or during a period in which the drum corps was regularly winning trophies, whilst the flute corps was not, in triumphalist singing by the drummers that inspired some quietly expressed resentment amongst the fluters.

Like SGWM, BLSOU find their performance opportunities primarily in band parades, and since BLSOU hold their own annual parade in Ballymena, there are reciprocal relationships involved.  As a result, BLSOU participates in an extraordinarily intensive schedule, taking part in over seventy parades annually.  This often means doing two parades or more in a weekend, sometimes up to three on a single day.  As a result, BLSOU’s parade is the largest public event in Ballymena, considerably surpassing the Twelfth parade in size.

BLSOU also perform in indoor contests, but these are very different occasions to the formal events sponsored by the NIBA.  ‘Battles of the Bands’ as they are termed, following a rock convention, usually take place not in concert halls but in nightclubs, where the combative theme is sometimes emphasised by roping off that part of the dance-floor where the bands perform so that it resembles a boxing ring.  Whereas the audience in an NIBA contest sits in perfect silence until the end of a performance, in a ‘battle of the bands’, audiences clap, sing dance, cheer and drink their way through each band’s performance, making their preferences clear by the extent of their participation.  The contests are invariably followed by a disco, at which the dancing that has started to the bands is continued until the small hours.  Such contests are usually organised by host bands as fundraising events.  The host band will not take part in the contest, but will supply adjudicators and often, significant cash prizes, which can provide valuable income to pay for instruments, uniforms or transport.  At least as important as such material benefits are the emotional rewards of ‘flow’ experiences and the status that accrues from the acclaim of audiences.



Bands within each of the three genres considered pursue flow experiences through performance, but the routes they take to achieving such experiences differ markedly, and these routes are conditioned, although not completely determined by class dynamics.  Within BVFB, the influx of middle-class members attracted by the band’s commitment to art-music led to an economy of flow, in which flow experiences were experienced disproportionally by senior members and denied to junior members.  This led to difficulties in recruiting and retaining young members, and so in sustaining the band as a viable ensemble.  SGWM, as a working-class band within a village dominated by an affluent middle-class, adapted their behaviour and aesthetics in ways that made them acceptable to their middle-class neighbours, largely abandoning their blood-and-thunder roots and developing a taste for part-harmony and the disciplined demeanour of a melody band.  BLSOU, hailing from the solidly working-class estate of Ballykeel, faced no such pressures, but the desire for respect within the blood-and-thunder community itself set them on a different path to musical excellence within the aesthetic parameters of the stigmatised blood-and-thunder genre.  In each case, the competences that band members learn to embody, and the learned tastes and preferences which motivate them to acquire those competences, are, at a conscious or unconscious level, deeply entwined with the political boundaries, not only of ethnicity, but equally of class.




Ballyclare Victoria Flute Band (2010) History [online], avaible: http://www.ballyclarevictoriafluteband.co.uk/history.htm [accessed 27/7/10].

Bell, Desmond (1990) Acts of Union: Youth Culture and Sectarianism in Northern Ireland, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Bryan, Dominic (2000) Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition and Control, London: Pluto.

Bryan, Dominic, T.G. Fraser & Seamus Dunn (1995) Political Rituals: Loyalist Parades in Portadown, Univ. of Ulster.

Bryans, Robin (1964) Ulster: A Journey through the Six Counties, London: Faber & Faber.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hastings, Gary (2003) With Fife and Drum: Music, Memories and Customs of an Irish Tradition. Belfast: Blackstaff.

Heaney, David (2005) Band for Life: The Story of Ballyclare Victoria Flute Band, Ballyclare: Self-published.

NIBA (n.d.) History, [online], available: http://www.niba.fsnet.co.uk/history.htm [accessed 27/7/10].

‘People and Place: Neighbourhood Renewal in Regional Towns and Cities – Draft Implementation Plan’.  Department for Social Development, available:

http://www.dsdni.gov.uk/nr_draft_imp_plan_towns_cities.pdf [accessed 27/7/10].

Stuempfle, Stephen (1995) The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Witherow, Jaqueline (2006) ‘Band Development in Northern Ireland: Ethnographic Researcher to Policy Consultant’, in Anthropology in Action 13 (1-2) pp. 44-54

Zook, Kristal Brent (1992) ‘Reconstructions of Nationalist Thought in Black Music and Culture’, in Garofalo, Reebee, ed., Rockin’ the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, South End: Boston, 255-256.




Fifing tunes are frequently described as being played in hornpipe time (Sculliion 1982:29; Schiller 2001:68; Hastings 2005:52).  The tunes are usually notated in 2/4 or 4/4 time and are played at the pace of a slow hornpipe.  Whilst many fifing tunes are indeed derived from hornpipes, a considerable number do not conform to the ‘dotted’ rhythm of the hornpipe. This includes tunes that are exclusive to the fifing tradition with no dance connections and tunes that have been ‘dropped down’ into fifing time from jig or reel time.  Tunes dropped down from jig time are readily identifiable by their characteristic pattern of two quavers followed by a crotchet (see ‘The Blackthorn Stick’ below) whilst those dropped down from reel time tend to preserve groups of four evenly played quavers.  Even the fifing tunes that are derived from hornpipes tend to be played evenly, without the characteristic ‘dotted’ hornpipe rhythm, so I suggest that ‘fifing time’ should be considered a separate tune-type, distinct from the hornpipe and other tune-types on which it draws.  Notation for two tunes may be seen below, although it should be born in mind that individual fifers may vary and ornament the tunes according to their own taste.  The first is the fifing tune, Open the Door, which has no dance counterpart.  The second is the well-known jig, The Blackthorn Stick, notated first in jig time and then in fifing time for comparison. When played on the fife, these tunes would all be played an octave higher than written.



[1] An earlier version of the paper was first presented orally at the 5th ICTM Ireland Annual Conference, ‘Ensemble/Playing Together’, Limerick, 26-28 Feb. 2010.

[2] Exact numbers are difficult to determine as the band scene is decentralised, with no overarching organisational body, and is fluid, with new bands forming as older ones fold.  Witherow (2006:47-8) identified 633 bands defined as ‘unionist’.  This is widely regarded as an underestimate by band members, and Witherow concedes that some bands may have been missed (pers. com).  BBC Radio Ulster reported over 800 bands on parade in Northern Ireland on July 12th 2008 and July 12th 2009.  These totals included visiting bands from Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, England and Canada.

[3] ‘The Loyal Orders’ is an umbrella term covering all the Protestant parading fraternities, the most significant of which are the Orange Order (OO), the Royal Black Preceptory (RBP) and the Apprentice Boys of Derry (ABOD).  The main Loyal Order celebrations take place on Easter Monday (ABOD), the Twelfth of July (OO), Derry Day (closest Saturday to August 12th – ABOD) and the ‘Last Saturday’ in August (RBP), traditionally the last day of the ‘marching season’, although band parades now extend to much later in the year.

[4] The terminology has survived in today’s flute-bands although the meaning has changed.  In the Lambeg tradition, the shift from single to double time was a means of building up excitement by introducing a more intense rhythm: a literal doubling in the number of strokes.  Flute-bands achieve a similar effect in a different way.  The first section of a tune is played only by the lead-drummer or ‘tip’.  This is referred to as ‘single-time’.  The section is then repeated, with all the drummers playing the same rhythm in unison.  This is referred to as double-time.  In fact, it is not the timing that changes but the dynamics. The same pattern is repeated for each section of the tune.  Although such dynamic techniques are common in military bands worldwide, it is only in Northern Ireland that the terminology of single and double-time is used to describe them: a legacy of the Lambeg heritage.

[5] The normal pace of British army units during the 18th and 19th centuries was the ‘Common Step’, of 60-75 paces a minute.  This was a pace at which a heavily laden soldier could move consistently cross-country or on dirt roads.  The ‘Quickstep’ or ‘Quick March’ of 100-120 paces a minute was only used for short periods of battlefield maneuvering.  The introduction of metaled roads and the separation of ceremonial foot drill from tactical practice allowed the Quick March to become the standard pace on parade.  (The ‘Slow March’ also used by the modern British Army is a purely ceremonial movement that is more closely related to ballroom dance steps than to the archaic ‘Common Step’.  It is never used by Ulster marching bands).

[6] The drumming style of the British military is based on a small number of ‘rudiments’: basic techniques such as the ‘flam’ or ‘paradiddle’, which are combined to create rhythmic patterns.  Modern drumming styles derived from this system, such as those of pipe bands or American college bands have increased the number and complexity of these rudiments, but the principle remains the same.  These ‘rudiments’ formed no part of the Lambeg drumming style, or the ‘Blood and Thunder’ style of the 1970s (see below).

[7] Known Protestant bands were Argyll Temperance, Carrickfergus Amateurs, Kitchener Apprentice Boys, Ravenhill Temperance, Ulster Amateurs, Victoria Temperance, Wellington, and 14th Old Boys. Almost certainly Catholic were St. Mary’s, St. Michael’s and St. Saviour’s (Protestant bands are not named after saints).  Only Ravenhill Temperance survives today.

[8] Most Orange lodges parade on 6-8 occasions annually, and about half of these will be small Sunday church parades, at which only hymns may be played.  Although blood-and-thunder bands could find engagements at celebratory occasions such as ‘the Twelfth’, lodges did not appreciate their style at church parades.  Moreover, most blood-and-thunder bands had little interest in learning hymns.

[9] Bryan (2000:127) has discussed the nature of such links, noting that in many cases, bands that accepted paramilitary funding in return for carrying paramilitary banners and participating in paramilitary events could then become a recruiting ground for that paramilitary group. Bryan observed that many bands rejected such associations, and some collapsed under paramilitary pressure.

[10] My entry into the world of flute bands was unproblematic.  I never had to approach a band and request access, on the contrary, all three bands with which I played approached me and asked me to join them on the strength of my expressed interest in their music and perceived ability to contribute to their performance.  My ability to read standard musical notation and play part-harmonies was a significant factor for all three bands.  My working-class Presbyterian background and British military service may have made it easier for me to fit into these groups (despite my long hair, Irish citizenship and English accent), but my easy acceptance was based primarily on shared enthusiasm for the music.  Although band membership is widely perceived as a demonstration of commitment to the politics of Loyalism, Loyalism is loosely defined, and commitment is enacted through musical participation –  ideological correctness is not required.  In my experience, bands rarely discuss political issues unless, as in the case of parading disputes, they impinge directly on the band’s activities.  In these cases, discussions tend to be pragmatic rather than ideological.

[11] At the All-Ireland Championship, a set test-piece was played, whilst at the ‘Own Choice’, bands were free to choose their own music.

[12] My own recruitment to the band, to play the Alto F-flute, together with piccolo player Samuel Quirey, resulted in the first moves to add harmony to the blood-and-thunder style.  BLSOU now use harmonies in a number of tunes, but their use of harmony is closer to a bagpipe drone, with long held notes, or a traditional accordion player’s use of basses for rhythmic emphasis, than to the art-music conventions adhered to by melody bands.